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It is still possible for the IMO to translate climate aspiration into action

Europe’s FuelEU agreement has added some much-needed positive momentum to IMO talks

Shipping’s climate negotiations are a high stakes game of poker, where governments will be looking to make deals in exchange for compromises. It makes little strategic sense to show your hand this early in the game, but real progress can be achieved in the next three months

THE climate debate is streamed live in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish at the International Maritime Organization.

Sadly, there is no translation channel available to interpret real meaning of the thinly veiled political horse trading that underlies that jargon-laden United Nations lingua franca of member state negotiators.

If such a translation were available, the casual listener would assume they were tuning in to a live poker game rather than detailed assessment of climate politics.

With less than three months to go before adoption, negotiators should arguably have been focused on the forensic final details, rather than tying themselves in knots over whether 2050 targets to eliminate greenhouse gases could better be described as a more non-committal “mid-century” fudge.

A handy translation would allow listeners to identify the appeasement of China’s 2060 goals and identify the coded request for a quid pro quo in the climate finance negotiations that will now follow.

It is hard to overstate how important, or difficult, these negotiations are, both in terms of society’s efforts to avoid dangerous climate change, but also for the shipping sector as a whole. The details agreed in July will effectively set the regulatory landscape for decades to come and set the pace of investment in fuels and zero-carbon infrastructure.

A top-level reading of the numbers of governments now professing to support high ambition outcomes, would suggest there are positive signs of progress. But this is a simplistic way to estimate how these debates will conclude and the nature of the debate outside the formal IMO meetings leading up to MEPC 80 is therefore crucial.

But it remains the considered view of Lloyd’s List that progress is not just possible, it is entirely achievable.

As the IMO negotiators were mentally calculating the climate mitigation funds achievable this week, the European Union confirmed the world’s first law on green maritime fuels that sets ambitious targets for shipowners to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Legislators agreed on a provisional deal under which the greenhouse gas intensity of fuels will be reduced by as much as 80% by 2050, with set waypoints for revisions that will inevitably tightens this ambition further.

Tangible, ambitious targets are precisely what is needed right now for the industry to move forward with investment and the European Union has sent the IMO a clear and direct message that regional regulators will not wait indefinitely for the global consensus to catch up.

The IMO has four critical and interrelated debates evolving in parallel, all due for MEPC 80. Partly because they are evolving in parallel and interrelated, it is not possible to clearly identify how any of these items might conclude.

But this is where translation is required.

The IMO’s semantic showdown over dates and ambition this week is best described as “politics” at this stage. Realistically everyone in that room knows full well where the red lines of all major states’ negotiating positions lie right now. What follows between now and MEPC 80 is a high stakes game of political poker where the pot up for grabs is the potentially lucrative area of climate finance found between those red lines.

And the good news is that an IMO translation would reveal progress.

Momentum has built towards an ambitious revision of the greenhouse gas reduction strategy this week. Rather than the debate being polarised between developed economies and a small group of small island developing states on one side, and a large group of developing countries on the other side, this is now a multi-layered debate with various different agendas appearing in interventions.

Many countries are clearly seeing the opportunity for renewable energy and hydrogen/hydrogen derived fuel and that is changing the nature of the debate towards finance.

It is to be expected in a multilateral political negotiation, that a “package deal” that achieves consensus across states with different preferences only emerges at the end of the debate process, that is to say at MEPC 80.

It makes little strategic sense to show your hand this early in the game, because if you have got things in your back pocket that you’re willing to give away, you don’t do it now, you do it at the last minute when you really need to and when you get something in exchange.

That is essentially what we are seeing inside the IMO right now, so expect some diplomatic showboating and serious poker faces between now and MEPC 80.

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